Nashville: Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

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No, the cabin pictured above is not the beloved home of Andrew Jackson, seventeenth president of the United States, “Hero,” and “Rock Star” (the latter two according to the promotional material for the historic site). It’s one of the cabins where his slaves lived.

I visited The Hermitage within the first month of moving to Nashville. I went with my grandma, and the beautiful home and property definitely made for a pleasant walk. I’ll be honest: it seems a bit odd to me to turn the home and gardens of a genocide’s mastermind into a celebratory  historical destination. And let’s face the facts, that is exactly what Andrew Jackson was….a man who earned his stripes killing Native Americans, gained celebrity status for a brutal battle in a war that had already ended, and masterminded the death of thousands of Native Americans through the Indian Removal Act, a precedent that opened the floodgates for the killing of this country’s original inhabitants on a sickening scale.

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Living in Tennessee, which is very proud to have produced this president, I get really frustrated with the gentle, white-washed portrayals of Jackson. He is described as a complex/complicated man who did both so much good and so much bad.

The official jacket description of his most recent biography (by John Meacham) describes him this way: “Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.”

Are you kidding me? Can you imagine a biography of Hitler or Stalin or Pot Pol that spoke of their contradictions as if “warm sentimentality” is a balance for genocide? It might go something like this: “Hitler was a complicated man. He loved Eva passionately and was a vegetarian and did not drink, but also had a fierce side that came out in his Final Solution. He did whatever it took to boost the moral of his countrymen and improve the economy.” That would be ridiculous right?

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Throughout his lifetime, Andrew Jackson owned up to 300 Black people. His farm ran on their labor, his food came to his table because of them. His beautiful home was likely built with slave labor. It was certainly maintained by it. The Hermitage exhibits describe his wife Rachel as a kind, loving woman…but also a harsh master. Let’s face the fact, the Jacksons success in life was based on the brutal exploitation of Native Americans and enslaved Blacks.

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But I didn’t learn that at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. There, in a series of beautiful exhibits and a tour through the house, I learned all about his military exploits, his happy home life, his great love marriage to Rachel, and where on the property his slaves lived. The exhibits in the visitor’s center did reference the Indian Removal Act, but if the phrase “Trail of Tears” was there, I didn’t see it (and I read every word in exhibits). They did talk about one slave in particular…the one who wanted to be buried next to the Jacksons when he died *ughhh*. I was also disappointed to hear an elderly interpreter refer to Jacksons “servants” (I’m guessing that’s not their site-wide policy, but it’s still disappointing.

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I feel like I missed a great learning opportunity. What a great place that would have been to learn more about the impact Jackson had on the large-scale destruction of Native communities. What a great place that would have been to learn about how his power, like that of so many at the time (not to mention the entire US economy) was based on the labor of slaves and resources stolen from Native tribes.

After a few days of fuming, I didn’t think too much more of the Hermitage until recently, when the site released its official statement on the removal of Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill and his replacement with Harriet Tubman (a true hero). The statement released by Andrew Jackson Foundation (which governs the site) said they were disappointed with the decision and reminded readers that the man was “complicated.” Sigh. If you are in the area, it’s certainly a historically significant site, so perhaps worth a visit, but I do hope they will one day focus more on the Jackson’s horrifying decimation of a people group and less on the “love story” of his marriage.

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On a brighter note, here’s a picture of me and my adorable Grandma, who visited me for a night while on a road trip from Maryland to Arizona (something she still does regularly at 85 and alone except for her little dog because she loves to travel…my hero). hermitage7

Please note that the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. [35mm taken with my Canon EOS Rebel 2000. Click here for more pictures of Tennessee.]

8 thoughts on “Nashville: Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

  1. Well, for all his depredations of his own people, Stalin isn’t exactly the least popular person in Russian history.

    And I had a similar reaction visiting the famous tapestry in Bayeux last summer: I saw nowhere in the museum a mention he wasn’t eligible to be king under English law at the time, and very little mention that the English themselves never accepted him as legitimate, revolting against him repeatedly, only to be slaughtered by the thousands.

  2. Jackson’s personal style was likened by historian David Hackett Fischer to that of a Celtic border chieftain, and it’s not a bad description. In many ways, both in his leadership ability and his ability to use his anger and propensity to violence to get what he wanted, Jackson embodied an ideal that was popular in the back country of his day. And not all all of that violence was directed outward against slaves or Indians, but against his fellow white property owners as well. The man made personal enemies over seemingly trivial issues, such as the Peggy Eaton affair, and was a frequent duelist.

    It’s not a style that is much liked in many parts of the country. But to some parts of the country, it made him a hero then, and to some, he’s still one now.

      • Listening to Jackson fulminate against his opponents during the Nullification Crisis, the Bank War, or (as already mentioned) the Peggy Eaton Affair makes it clear he brooked no defiance of his overbearing will.

        I note you making the comparison to Trump in another reply on this topic. I’ve thought a bit about that myself. There are certainly commonalities: weak political knowledge, a tendency to see anyone who criticizes him as a enemy, posing as a populist hero while wealthier than his followers, and that cult of personality. On the other hand, to me Trump seems more a talker than a doer (for better or worse). In a conflict with Congress, I expect Trump would try to strike a deal or complain about being treated unfairly, while Jackson, faced with the same situation, claimed his election on a national basis made HIM the man who represented the nation, not a bunch of petty Congressmen!

  3. Great commentary. I listened to Meacham’s book on Jackson recently. I found the book to be interesting. Meacham does do a fair job of highlighing his complexity and being honest about the Indian Removal Act and what it meant in real terms (ie, death). It’s worth reading to get a better sense of the man. Overall, I found myself more informed about Jackson and disliking the man more and more. If I were to transport myself back in time, there’s no way I would have voted for him. I found him to be caught up in a cult of personality and that he believed himself to be a savior of the nation, going so far to call himself “father” of the people. That’s extremely disturbing.

    • I didn’t read the book. When I first moved here I attended a church service where Meacham was giving the sermon/ speech. He literally said “Who knows why some are poor and some are rich” while standing in a oozing money church on the rich side of a town that’s clearly divided into rich and poor. That maaayyy have biased me against his book. Jackson really seems to me the best historical equivalent to Trump (although he was probably more intelligent).

      • That’s really interesting. I’m wondering why he was in the pulpit. Is he a pastor? Sounds like the type of sermon that would have gotten responses from the regulars like: “That was a nice sermon.” Sermons though, are meant to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted with the Word of God.

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